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Creative Nonfiction: Doing Research to Increase Understanding

Dave Hood

Conducting research is the part of the “nonfiction” aspect of writing creative nonfiction. It is one of the Five R’s of creative nonfiction, one of the essential components of writing personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism.  The amount of required research for a writing project depends on the form of creative nonfiction. Research involves collecting facts to increase understanding of a person, place, event, idea, experience, thing.

In this article, I’ll explain the purpose of research, identify the methods of research, and how to research your own life. 

Purpose of Research

You carry out research to increase your understanding of a person, topic, idea. You also do research to see what else has been written on the topic that you are going to write about. You don’t want to duplicate what is already written. You can also do research to become a subject matter expert.

Research also allows you to verify facts. You want to be sure that what you written is true and accurate.

And research has another purpose: To stimulate our memories. Often when we investigate an experience or event, memories associated with the event rise into our minds from depths of unconsciousness.

If you intend to write a memoir, you’ll be required to complete extensive research into your own life — to recall significant details of people, places, events from your own past.

Facts from research can also be used by the writer to create metaphors or similes. Brenda Miller suggests this in her book,  “Tell It Slant.”

Some forms of creative nonfiction require more research than other forms. For example, a personal essay about a canoe trip to a lake that resulted in an epiphany requires less research than a memoir. The canoe trip might only require you to consult your writing journal and to speak with the friend who accompanied you on the canoe trip, whereas a memoir will  involve interviewing friends and family, visiting the library and public records offices, revisiting the places you frequented during the period of the memoir, and obtaining details about the popular culture of the time by conducting research with a Google search.

There are two drawbacks to doing research. First, the tsunami of facts that you collect can overwhelm, preventing you from writing. Secondly, research can result in procrastination. In other words, the task of researching a project often prevent you from writing the narrative.

Methods of Research

Immersion. You acquire an understanding by “living the experience.” Suppose you intend to write a story about baseball, but you’d never played this game before. You could increase your understanding by playing a few games of baseball. You would then use what you learned from the experience to write your piece of creative nonfiction.

Interviewing. A popular approach is to interview a subject matter expert, or talk to people who participated in the event or experience, or interview those who were a witnesses to the event, or interview those who knew the person you are writing about. An interview always requires a list of question to ask. These questions should be open-ended, requiring the person being interviewed to respond with more than a “yes” or “no.”

The Reference Library. The reference library contains a sea of information, including:

  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Books
  • Periodicals
  • Encyclopaedias
  • Publications on microfilm, such as old newspapers
  • Online catalogues to help you find facts

Be sure to ask the librarian for assistance.

The Internet. Begin by conducting a Google search, the most popular search engine. There is also Google Scholar, which you can use for scholarly searches. Then read and collect useful facts at reputable websites. For instance, suppose you want to learn more about modern and contemporary art, you could visit “The Art Story website at www.artstory.org. To help you find information, you can use the Search tool on the website. Not only can you read content on websites, but you can read blog postings. Many subject matter experts have their own blogs in which they post articles, commentaries, and so forth. And YouTube offers you information via video and photographs.

Public Records. Sometimes you’ll be require to verify facts. The public records is the place to fact check marriage licences, dates of birth, and death certificates.

Researching Your Own Life

Writing a personal essay often requires that you research your own life before writing. This is mandatory when writing a memoir. Research allows you to check the accuracy memories. Research enables you to recall details of the popular culture, as well as the social and economic and historical conditions of the life you lived in the past.

Research also enables you to mine your own memory, enabling you to recall people, places, events, experiences that have long been forgotten. Why? Researching a timeline or time period stimulates your memory. You can start with a timeline. For instance, do a Google search to find out what happened in 1980. The Google search results of the events of that year will enable you to recall memories of things that happened to you during that year

Besides using a timeline, there are many other ways to research your own life, including:

  • Challenges, setbacks, obstacles. For instance, what is the biggest challenge you have faced in life? What is the saddest moment in your life?
  • Moves, leaving home, first home, place where you lived after the divorce.
  • Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, marriages, deaths
  • First experience, such as your first kiss, first new car, first speech, first job
  • Achievements. What are your accomplishments?
  • Legacy. What do you want to be remembered for?
  • Revisit places of your childhood, adolescence, or adulthood
  • Look over old photographs, read old diaries and journals and letters, leaf through old scrapbooks.

Author, Lois Daniel, has written a must-read text for anyone who desires to write personal narrative essays or a memoir. Her book is called, “How to Write Your Life Story.” She explains, provides tips, and suggestions on how you can tap into memory, and rediscover your favorite toys as a child, write about inventions that have significantly impacted you, accomplishments you are most proud of, happy and sad family events, favorite pets, friends and family who have passed through your life, and much more.

What sort of research will be required? The type of narrative determines what information/facts the writer provides the reader. (You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind)The key points to remember: creative nonfiction writers do research  to increase their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. And yet, too much research, a mountain of facts, can blow out the flame of creativity. And so, a writer ought to do only as much research as required to understand the topic, person, idea, he/she is write about.

Resources. For more information on how to increase your understanding by research, read the following:

  • You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind.
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second Edition, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the nonprofessional Writer by Lois Daniel
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Writing Creative Nonfiction: A Toolbox of Techniques

Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.

There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.

Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.

In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.

Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for  writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?

Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:

  • Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
  • Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
  • Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
  • Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
  • Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.

As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure,  resulting in a new structure or shape.

Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.

Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.

Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll  recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.

Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you  must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:

  • Setting-time and place of the story
  • Action-something happens.
  • Dialogue-someone something not always
  • Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
  • Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
  • Point of View-first, second, third person.
  • Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
  • Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end

Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.

You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.

Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.

Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:

  • Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
  • Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
  • Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
  • Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
  • Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
  • Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
  • Theme-the meaning of the story

The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.

Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism
  • Personification
  • Imagery
  • Assonance and alliteration
  • Allusion

Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.

Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:

  • Personal thoughts and feelings
  • Opinions
  • Ruminations
  • Personal perspective
  • stream of consciousness
  • Mediations

Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.

 Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction.   Avoid using clichés and jargon.

Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:

  • Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation.  A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
  • Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
  • Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind,  to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
  • Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
  • Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
  • Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.

Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:

  • Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
  • Parallel Structure
  • Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
  • Alliteration and Assonance
  • Sensory Imagery

Resources.

For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:

  • Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
  • Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin

Writing Creative Nonfiction: Beginning and Ending

By Dave Hood

The most important sentence is often the first one. It is often called the hook or lead.  If it doesn’t inspire the reader to proceed to the second sentence, and then the third….your personal essay, or memoir, or any other form of creative writing is dead. That is what William Zinsser tells us in “On Writing Well”, a how-to guide for writing creative nonfiction.

Your opening must capture the reader’s attention and motivate them to read your entire piece of writing. You do this by writing a compelling lead, opening, or entry point.

There are many ways to create an entry point, or lead, or beginning for a piece of creative nonfiction. One way is to just begin “telling the story.” Sometimes writers begin with a “quotation” or “interesting fact.” Another way is to ask a question. For instance: More than 20 million people have purchased Fifty Shades of Gray. What does this suggest about women?

And once you’ve written your piece of creative nonfiction, you must end with a bang.  Otherwise, the reader is inclined to be disappointed. The lousy ending is like a film that ends poorly. And so, you’ll want to end with a one final point, which the reader can take away and ponder.

In this article, I’ll discuss the following:

  • How to write an opening or lead or entry point into a story
  • How to end a piece of creative nonfiction

Writing an Opening

As mentioned in the introduction, there are many ways to begin writing a piece of creative nonfiction. Some writers begin by telling a story. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell did when he wrote “Slackers” for the New Yorker magazine. (July 30th, 2012)

William Zinsser, author of the splendid writing-advice book, “On Writing Well”, identifies a few other ways. You can begin with:

  • A question
  • A quotation
  • A fascinating fact
  • An Anecdote

Laurie Oliver, author of the how-to book, “The Story Within,”  identifies many other ways to begin:

  • With a list
  • With a memory
  • With a scene
  • With a reminiscence
  • With a reflection
  • With an assertion
  • With a diagnosis
  • With a general statement

One of the simplest ways to begin is by asking a question. For instance, what made Andy Warhol a fascinating artist? What was his contribution to the world of art?

Another easy way to begin is with a list. For example, here are the reasons why I write…

Another is to begin with a quotation. For instance, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”—St. Augustine.

An interesting fact can also introduce a good piece of creative writing. Writer David Remnick, the author of the profile “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two” (July 30th, 2012) begins with an interesting fact:

Nearly half a century ago, when Elvis Presley was filming “Harum Scarum and “Help!” was on the charts, a moody, father-haunted, yet uncannily charismatic Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was building a small reputation around New Jersey as a guitar player in a band called the Castiles.

Usually, the form of creative nonfiction you are sitting down to write will define the how to begin. For instance, a personal-narrative essay will usually begin at the beginning of the story. A meditative essay often begins with a question. For instance, What is the meaning of life? A travel essay can begin with a memorable scene. A literary journalism essay often begins with an interesting fact, generalization, assertion.

Writing the Ending

Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening. You need to know when to end and how to end a story. You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening. That is what William Zinsser tells us. There are several ways to end. The personal narrative usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. Some writer’s end by referring back to the beginning of the story.  If your entry point into the essay is a question, then you can end with one final answer. Many writer’s end with a final quote.

In the essay, “Slackers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he ends with the following quote: “None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for than long and coming back to full health,” he writes. He was back on the track nine days later.

David Remnick, author of “We Are Alive”, ends with the following quote: Springsteen glanced at the step and stepped into the spotlight. “Hola, Barcelona!” he cried out to a sea of forty-five thousand people. “Hola, Catalunya!”

Other ways to end are to make a judgement or recommendation or share an insight.

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser makes a few suggestions about ending a piece of creative nonfiction:

  1. “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
  2. “The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence–or last paragraph, is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
  3. “The perfect ending should take the reader slightly by surprise.”
  4. “What usually works best is a quotation.”

Zinsser also tells us not to end by summarizing. For instance: “In summary…or “To conclude…”

Why? A summary is repeating yourself by compressing details that were already shared with the reader. Instead, you ought to make one final point that resonates in the mind of the reader.

There are no rules on how to end, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Whatever methods you choose, be sure to capture your reader’s attention when you begin. A good beginning draws your readers into the writing like a magnet.  And end your work with some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.

Resources

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Story Within: New Insights and Inspirations for Writers by Laura Oliver
  • The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction by Francis Flaherty

Opening the Door to Memory

 By Dave Hood

How do you find material to write creatively about? You must open the door, peer into the basement, dust off long forgotten memories of childhood, turning points, achievements, and so forth. These memories of experience are the pillars of  the personal narrative essay, the memoir, the autobiography, and biography.  And when you think about it, memories plays a vital role in all creative writing, whether a poem, short story, creative nonfiction: When the present moment of time passes, it becomes a memory, a word picture.

In this article, I’ll explain how to tap into your memories and how to write about them in creative nonfiction.

What is the Importance of Memory?

“Memory has been called the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives.” (Tell It Slant)

Memory also constructs the self– who you are.  The writer defines his or her sense of self from memories of life-achievements, misfortunes, sad times, charming occasions, and much more. Every life experience becomes a memory, which molds and shapes the sense of self. And the creative writer writes about self through the forms of personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.

Memories become fragmented in our minds, which are often filled with many thoughts, images of word pictures, feelings, sensory experiences. We must make order out of this chaos of memory. Writing is a way to do this.

A significant memory can be dredged up from the bottom of the unconscious mind by countless things, such as music, a found object, photography, toy, quotation, name of a place, or bumping into a long forgotten friend while traveling. For instance, ask yourself the following: What was your favorite toy as a child? Instantly, you will call memories of your childhood? Perhaps you enjoyed playing with a Barbie doll, Hot Wheels, the Cabbage Patch doll.  You can use your favorite toys, these objects, as  writing prompts, to tap into  memories filed away in your mind.

And so, your memories are the foundation of all creative writing.

The Five Senses

We experience memories through our five senses— sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Each of these senses can be used by the writer to evoke memories to write about.

Our sense of smell is automatic. Some smells we enjoy. Others smells are detestable. For instance, the scent of some perfume can be erotic, but the stench of rotting garbage can make a person want to vomit.  To write about memories of smell, ask yourself: What smells do you enjoy? Why? Then write about them. What smells do you loath? Write about them.

Our sense of taste is often acquired.  Food provides immediate gratification, fills our stomachs when we’re hungry, meets a need for comfort. The taste of food evokes all sorts of memories. To write about taste, ask yourself: What foods do I enjoy: Why? Write about them. Then ask yourself : what tastes awful? Write about it.

The sense of sound is a powerful tool for mining your memory. For instance, hearing a love song on the car radio as you drive to work can conjure up memories of a love that died, or a childhood memory, or a happy occasion. We hear sounds everywhere: Strolling along the street, we hear honking horns, roadside construction, the roar of the public bus. At home, with the window open, we hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, the rain drumming on the concrete tiles on the porch. To write about sound, ask yourself , what sounds do you enjoy? Why. Write about them.

The sense of touch also evokes memories. We all desire touch. It is a human need. That is why sex is so important to humanity–as it expresses love and the desire to be touched in erotic ways. The sense of touch also allows us to do everything we take for granted, like walking, picking something up, lying down. Without our sense of touch, we would become disoriented in our surroundings. Sometimes touch can cause pain. Other times, it can arouse sensual desires. To write about touch, ask yourself: What are the most painful memories of physical pain, then write about them. Ask yourself, what are your most pleasant memories? Write about them.

The sense of sight is the most powerful of our senses. We see memories in our mind. They are word pictures, which we play over and over. Some are painful, sad, distressing. Others are pleasant.  The mind stores these short film clips of memory in the unconscious mind. To write about them, you must get in touch with them. Sometimes an old photograph can stir your memory. Other times, an old show on television can evoke memories. There are countless things that can trigger memories of sight. To write about memory, ask yourself, What is the worst thing you have ever seen?  Then write about it. Then ask yourself, what is the most beautiful thing you have seen? Write about it.

What Memories to Write About?

Author Louis Daniel, who has written a wonderful book called “How to Write Your Own Life Story”, explains how to dive into the deep-sea of your memory, find treasures to write about. Here are a few suggestions from her book that you can use as writing prompts to craft a personal essay or a memoir:

  • First experiences, like your first love, first car, first sex, first job. Write about first experiences that were memorable.
  • Achievement, such as graduation, awards, running a marathon. Write about those things you are proud of.
  • Turning points, like the death of a parent, job loss, illness, break up of a marriage. Write about experiences that changed you forever.
  • Inventions, like the iPod, computer, Internet, dishwasher, VCR player. Write about technologies had an impact on your life.
  • Family traditions, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversaries. Write about those experiences that had an impact.

Tools for Mining Your Memories?

There are many ways to mine your memory. I will discuss a few.

The easiest way to tap into your memory  is to use a writing prompt. There are many. For instance, find an old photograph of someone important in your life, then begin writing about that person, asking yourself, what memories pop into your mind.

Other writing prompts include brief encounters, favorite books and movies and music, diaries, newspaper articles, old toys, a diary, a wedding dress, or any other object that has been part of your life.

Author Judy Reeves has written a splendid book that will enable you to mine your memory. The book is called “A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Living Muse for the Writing Life. This book provides countless ways to tap into your memory–writing prompts, exercises, ways to find images and inspiration. For instance, she suggests writing about “what makes you laugh?” To write about laughter and humour, ask yourself: What are the funniest moments in your life? Who are the funniest people in your life? Who are those who have no humour? Write about them.

 Another way to get in touch with your memories is by freewriting. Here’s how:  Opening your notebook and write down the details of significant memories that pass into your mind. Write about anything that passes into your conscious mind. That is why it’s called freewriting.  Freewriting will open the door to your unconscious mind, bringing forth memories long forgotten. As you remember these details, other memories will appear in your mind. Freewriting is like knocking over the dominos: After the first domino falls, others fall over.

Another tool is to create a map of your neighborhood–the school, shape of the street, neighbor’s houses, the park. Then fill in the details of your friend’s, your neighbors, the place you played football or soccer or baseball as a kid. As you fill in the map of the neighborhood with details, write about them in detail.

A powerful tool for mining your memory is the time line. Essentially, you take a date, perhaps 1969, and then ask yourself, what important events happened that year? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you feel when you heard or saw the important events of history? For instance, where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon died or that terrorists had crashed a plane into the twin towers?

Tools for Writing About Memory

Your memory provides material for writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay or a memoir. When you write about memories, you must share the details of the experience with your reader .  You could simply tell your reader what happened. But this is dull. Readers want to be entertained. To write about memories, you want to create order from chaos, and so there must be some significance in the memory, such as a lesson learned, and a universal truth that appeals to or is experienced by all of humanity.

When writing about memory, you put into use the tools of fiction and poetry. Here are a few ways to delight your readers with your memories expressed as personal narratives:

  • Show, don’t tell your reader. The best way to show your reader a memory is to make it vivid with details and concrete and specific descriptions.
  • When writing about memories use associations, such as the old man smelled like an open can of beer. The best way is to use similes  and metaphors to make the abstract concrete.
  • Use sensory images–word pictures that describe memories of sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
  • Write vivid descriptions.

Along with knowing how to write creatively, the ability to mine your memories for significant materials is one of the most important tools you have for constructing memorable prose. And if you are going to write a personal narrative essay or memoir, being able to open the door to the basement of your memory and turning on the light to see what’s stored away is paramount.

In summary, creative nonfiction is based on memory, and so you are required to dust off memories and then write about them in a way that is entertaining. That is why you must apply similes and metaphors and vivid descriptions to your memories.  Don’t tell the reader about a memory! Show your reader by using these poetic and fiction techniques, especially by painting your writing with vivid details and concrete and specific descriptions.

Freewriting, using writing prompts, reading ” How to Write Your Life Story”, using a time line—these are useful techniques to find material in your mind to craft creative nonfiction.

Resources

To find out more about the tools for mining your memories and writing about these memories, I suggest you read the following:

  • How to Write About Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
  • A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
  • Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
  • Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola